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Sensory Grounding and Beyond

Some of you may be familiar with sensory grounding. If you're not, you will be after this :) Sensory grounding is a tool or set of behaviors often used in moments of stress, anxiety, panic, intense emotional states, and disconnection from the present moment. It helps reorient ourselves to the here-and-now. It is not a distraction technique (although it can be used as one), rather it helps us become aware, notice, and non-judgmentally observe other things in our field of awareness that could be more useful given the situation we find ourselves in.

Sensory grounding is essentially this: Notice something you can see, touch/feel (tactile), hear, smell, and taste. You will often see it presented as "Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, etc.) When we're stressed, anxious, and absorbed in unhelpful thought, we often miss out on the richness of life accessible to us through out senses. This is where sensory grounding comes in. It can help to re-engage us with life...right here, right now!

Sensory grounding is a mindfulness exercise. We are simply non-judgmentally noticing things via our senses. And if judgments do show up we notice those too! While going through the exercise it may be useful to phrase things like this "I'm noticing I can see a purple flower. I'm noticing I am hearing the sounds of cars driving by." The I'm noticing is what is important. It helps us to acknowledge that there is a ME who is capable of experiencing the noticing of things in the form of sight, hearing, smelling, etc. Further, we are not inherently the things that we are noticing, rather we are the space for noticing to exist. It's very interesting that we can easily acknowledge we are not a sound but have so much more difficulty making that distinction when it comes to our thoughts and feelings.

When practicing sensory grounding you can spend a little extra time noticing subtle details or changes while on each sensory experience. For example, if you hear cars driving by, can you notice the fluctuations within the sounds? Or, if you are touching a desk with your finger, can you notice any changes in the surface's texture? If you do this, it's not important that you actually notice differences; what's more important is the act of intentionally casting your attention toward this experience in an open, curious, and non-judgmental way.

It can be useful to extend our sensory grounding experience to thoughts and feelings, however, thoughts and feelings are typically not considered senses although this is argued by some. Many times it is thoughts themselves that have created our distress and got us motivated to do a sensory grounding exercise in the first place! If you do decide to notice thoughts and feelings as if they are objects or sensations, be sure to do it with openness, curiosity, non-judgment, and kindness.

Besides the core five senses, what other senses can we notice and get in touch with?

  • If it's safe, stand on one leg and notice your sense of balance. This is referred to our as vestibular sense.

  • Notice how at any moment you can sense where your body, limbs, and joints are in space. This is referred to as our proprioception.

  • Pain, or nociception, is another sense we have.

  • Like pain, the sense of hunger exists on a continuum. How hungry are you right now? Where do you experience hunger?

  • Hold your breath until the urge to breath arises. It can be uncomfortable right? This is caused by our peripheral chemoreceptors (receptors responsible for detecting carbon dioxide). We can sense when it's time to exhale or inhale if we're breathing consciously. When we're breathing unconsciously our body does this all on its own.

  • If you haven't looked at a clock recently, you can still get a "sense" of what time it might be or how much time has elapsed. You might be off but you can still get a sense and take a guess.

  • You probably have a good idea of temperature as well. Does any part of your body feel warmer or colder than another?

Above are just some other parts of the human experience to notice when being mindful. The above list is not exhaustive. Feel free to incorporate them into your mindfulness practice.

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